Saturday, March 10, 2012

Instead of Creating an Imagined Coup, Just Listen to the Public

It appears Indonesians are having a coup. Or at least that is what some in the government would have us believe. Indonesians woke to this news on Monday when the press carried a story, second place to Stevie Wonder’s Jakarta concert, that the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was to be overthrown by a retired general who is the chairman of a political party and an aspiring presidential candidate for 2014.

It was suggested that he would use expected street protests over the planned rise in fuel prices as a catalyst for a popular uprising.

It appears the government is taking the threat of a possible coup seriously and already has strategies in place, including increased security and intelligence surveillance to crush any plot to remove the president. This also includes blabbing the whole thing to the public.

Despite statements from the likes of Cabinet Secretary Dipo Alam (“A coup is against the Constitution. We will crush it.”) and Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Defense Affairs Minister Djoko Suyanto apparently confirming the government’s knowledge of a plot without giving any details, the most extraordinary element in this revelation is that Democratic Party lawmaker Ramadhan Pohan is reported to have “suggested” the person behind the alleged treason is Wiranto, a retired general and chairman of the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura). As to be expected, Wiranto has denied in unequivocal terms the accusation.

Ramadhan’s public statement raises several intriguing questions.

To begin with, how many spokesmen does the Democratic Party have? And who authorizes its public statements? Recently the call went out from on high for politicians to watch what they say to the media because there was a rampant outbreak of “foot in mouth disease.” Politician after politician stomped up to the microphones desirous of a little bit of public profile and shot his or her mouth off, only to have what they had stated hastily “qualified” later by embarrassed or furious party officials.

In this case, given the seriousness of the topic and the weight of the accusation, Ramadhan has either been deputed to leak this information to the public or he has personally and politically miscalculated on a monumental scale. It’s not every day that a person is publicly accused of planning to stage a coup and seize control of a country.

Other questions also beg for answers, namely the timing and context of this dramatic exposure of a fundamental threat to national stability. A coup strikes at the heart of everything democracy stands for.

Given the trouble the Democratic Party is in at present, an imaginary coup could be understood by the politically gauche in the party as a godsend. Conspiracy theories aside, were this the case, it would be an exercise in monumental stupidity. Manipulating an imagined coup to distract the public would be an exercise that everyone would see through. Political decisions, especially badly thought-out ones, have long-term consequences.

Yudhoyono is no Iron Lady and a Falklands crisis Indonesia-style will not serve his administration. To deflect attention away from what is unfolding in the Democratic Party, problems with the coalition or rising fuel prices with rumors of a coup would be seen by many as an attempt to stifle rising vocal opposition and legitimate disapproval of the government’s performance. Public opinion is already moving toward this conclusion and hence can only result in more dissatisfaction with the present administration.

If there are back-room rumblings in any quarters and calls for a radical change in government, the best thing that could happen is for the government to respond not by “crushing” loyal opposition, but by listening to it. And not a staged pretense of listening, but a genuine attempt to hear even the distasteful things. No government can survive long if it is divorced from reality unless it wishes to go against the will and soul of its people and tread a path of enforced totalitarianism. Indonesia committed itself over 10 years ago to a different path but appears to have lost its way. Neither the present direction nor a coup is the answer.

Rising fuel costs means rising prices across the board. The hardest hit will be those who can least afford to pay more for basic commodities like food. How will the government explain rising food prices to the poor while some lawmakers get rich from graft?

The government needs to get back on track with a crackdown on money politics, reform of the electoral system, the judiciary and law enforcement and the punishment of those who have hijacked Indonesia’s reform movement for their own purposes.

Perhaps Stevie Wonder’s arrival in town can tell us a few things about the surreal events that are happening — or said to be happening among us. His “Land of La La,” in which he sings “You might get everything you want, but not want everything you get. Being in la la land is like nowhere else. Living in the land, one hell of a land, a land full of lost angels, movie stars and great big cars and Perrier and fun all day,” could possibly shed some light on the present state of Indonesian politics, and all that jazz.

Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University (Unhan). Phillip Turnbull is a theology teacher based in Jakarta.

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